Dec 19 2010

Introduction and 2010 in Review For My Startup

Dusty

Hi, I’m Dusty Candland, husband, father, software developer, and entrepreneur. And now, blogger for Our Startup Story! I’m going to be sharing my experiences starting up and working with startups.

I started working full time for myself this year. I did have one large client ready to start work, so I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. I like building web applications and being a part of growing businesses. With that in mind, I decided my target clients would be other startups with web based technology of some kind. I help these clients build out their web applications. Anyway, here’s a look at where I’ve been and where I’m going.

Some thoughts about how this year has gone.

My target clients, startups, can be a hard target. Most don’t have a ton of money lying around and want to make sure they are spending it wisely. Plus they can be hard to find.

Selling is hard. Especially when talking to people is hard. I need to get better at that, and I have been, but I have a ways to go. My first step was to just get to events and talk to the people there. It seems crazy when writing this, but I really have to try to be extroverted.

I’ve found keeping my focus is harder on my own, partly because I don’t have a set schedule or place to work. Also, partly because there is a ton of stuff that I’m interested in. I’ve recently heard a good tip about time boxing tasks and sticking to it, I’m going to give that a try for a while.

I’ve mostly been going this alone, I have advisers that help a ton, but no one to help keep focus and motivation on a daily basis. I really think that is key, but I’ve also found that finding partners is a hard task. I thought working at a co-working space would help me feel connected and social, but I’m not so sure now.

Some thoughts about next year.

I’ve outlined some specific offerings for startups that I think will help show value to prospects. Offering open ended custom software development is good, but too large and scary for many.

I have to get better at talking with and meeting people. I need to find a ToastMasters club and just get over my fears of public speaking. That’s going to be a top goal for this next year. This is critical to the success of any startup, I know it, however, doing it is what matters. Suggestions welcome.

I’ve tried to keep some time set aside for working on my own projects. I plan to keep doing this and think it’s critical to keeping sharp and up to date with technology.

I want to help grow the startup community in Denver. There is an awesome community in Boulder and I think there should be an awesome community in Denver as well. I hope to help get it there.

I hope you’ve found this review interesting and maybe helpful! If you want to learn more about me or my company checkout my web application consulting site and my software development blog. I’ll be contributing here once or twice a month.


Nov 24 2009

What Advice Would You Give To Start a Business?

Jeffry

A lot of the blogging I do is in direct response to questions that people ask me.  I love answering questions.  This post is no different; and the question comes from one of my Flextras customers:

I’ve been wanting to explore selling some things that I have in my head, but have no idea where to start. Can you steer me in the right direction and let me know the pitfalls to avoid?

Wow, that’s a broad request; but I’m always up for a challenge.  Every business is different; and I don’t have any secrets.  But, here are some of my thoughts along with how I think they apply to Flextras.

I’d start by writing a business plan.  It doesn’t matter if you need or want funding.  A business plan will help you organize your thoughts and give you a road map for what to do.  What are you going to build?  Who are your customers?  What need does your product fill for those customers?  Who are your competitors?  How are you different from competitors?

With Flextras, I believe we are different from other commercial component vendors because of our licensing model.  We provide a fully functional free developer edition that never times out.  We also charge you based on the number of domains you want to deploy to, not the number of developer’s on your staff, and not on a percentage of your yearly revenues.  In some cases this can be huge savings.  Combine that with the fact that our unlimited deployment option is less than a single developer license for some of our competitors, I think we have an intriguing offer in the Flex Component space.  But, also realize that cost is only one factor in a comparison of two companies.

How is Flextras different than open source projects?  I believe this comes down to support.  When you need help, we are there either by e-mail. or phone or IM or twitter or facebook.  We go out f our way to be as accessible as possible to help you become a success with our components.

So, ask yourself how your product or service going to be different or better than your competitors?

If you don’t have competitors, think twice about your business because there may be a reason no one else exists in the space.  If you do have competitors, that’s a good start.  What can you learn about them?  What can you learn from them?  Don’t plan to compete on price.  Compete by offering something that your competitors don’t.  As one example, we can examine ice cream shopes within 10 minutes from my house.  ColdStone Creamery competes by mixing candy into your ice cream for you.  Pralines is a local chain that makes their own ice cream and whipped cream on-site.  Friendly’s is a sit down restaurant that puts up with kids with a smile no matter how loud the baby is screaming; and they often provide free Sundaes with your meal.  Blackstone has lots of outdoor seating.

Did I ask how you’ll be different from your competitors?  It is an important point to drill home.

When you plan for time lines and budgets, multiply everything by three.  Stuff will always crop up that delays things.

I also recommend that you read as many business books as you can.  If reading isn’t your thing, look for other forms of education, such as videos or a business coach.  I try to read at least one business book a month myself.

You might want to start with the E-Myth.  The gist of the book is that there are three successful “positions” that any start up needs.  The technician is the guy who does the work.  The Entrepreneur is the one with the vision.  The Manager is the guy who runs day to day operations.  To be a successful one-man shop–and grow beyond that–you need to balance skills in all three.  The book claims that most businesses are started by technicians who are fed up in their day job and/or think they can do it better; not Entrepreneurs or Managers.

DotComIt, the Flextras parent company, started as a technician business, and I picked up the other skills along the way.  Depending on your perspective, I am either sufficient or sufficiently lacking in all three.  Programming is my strong suit, of course.  When I was focused on consulting, being a better manager meant more to profit margins than good coding.  Sometimes it is tough for technicians to hear that.  I’ve seen a lot of technician started businesses close in less than 12 months.

It is unlikely that quality of your product/software will be the reason for failure, so be sure to devote time to items such as marketing.  When you’re a small business, marketing means talking to customers.  How do you get yourself in front of customers?  With Flextras, The Flex Show is one way.  The Flextras Friday Lunch live Q&A sessions is another.  Presenting at conferences like 360|Flex and Flex User Groups is another.

I also recommend that you read Jump Start Your Business Brain.  It focuses on positioning your product / service.  To sell products you need an overt benefit,  a dramatic difference and a real reason to believe.  That means, your product must benefit your customers; it must be different than competitors, and the customers must believe you can deliver on your promise.  The book explains it much more elegantly than I could.

With Flextras we believe our benefit is that our components save you time when compared to building it yourself.  That leads to quicker development times, which leads to happier clients.  Our dramatic difference is that you can download a developer edition at no cost and try it out with no restrictions.  You can prove to yourself or your boss or your client that our component will work in your application.  Some of the reasons why customers would believe we can deliver is that we’ve been in business for 10 years, we’re an Adobe Solutions Partner, we produce The Flex Show to help educate Flex Developers, and we hold a live session each week to answer your questions.  We are part of the community and are out there helping other Flex Developers the best we can.  We also prioritize responding to e-mails and fixing bugs as quickly as possible can also help people instill faith that we’ll deliver what we promise.

The The Cluetrain Manifesto is another good book to pick up, it talks about how markets are conversations and to be a successful business you should be taking place in the conversation.  Other than at the Flextras Friday Lunch Q&A sessions, and the occasional twitter conversation, I don’t know if people are talking about Flextras yet; so there isn’t much of a public conversation to join in.  I try to put top priority to be as accessible as possible.

So, in summary, I’d tell you to read a lot and don’t ignore marketing or customer service.  Does that help?


Nov 11 2009

The Consequences of a Win/Win Agreement

Jeffry

I’ve been reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  It is an “old school” book, and is a much heavier read than a lot of the more recent business related books.  The content is golden, though.  One chapter is on thinking win/win.  A win/win mind set is when you go into an agreement, or negotiations, with the prospect of coming up with something beneficial to both parties.  Over the years I’ve heard a lot of folks talk about “win/win”, but I get the impression it is more lip service while folks look out for their own best interests.  In business relationships, I believe it is better to walk away than to enter into a relationship that is not mutually beneficial.

A very small part of this chapter talks about how consequences are the natural result of a win/win agreement.  This is an important point that I feel was glazed over in the book.  There are four type of consequences that can be the result of an agreement:

  • Financial: Do a successful job and you can get more money!
  • Psychic: This is the ego boost, or the act of recognizing someone for their accomplishments.  Programmers answer questions on Stack OverFlow or the Adobe Forums because they want to help people and feel good about it.  The book mentions that this type of reward is often a bigger motivator than money.
  • Opportunity: If you’re a success, you’ll get more opportunities.  Opportunities are going to be related to the job.  As a consultant / vendor, many clients are going to say this to you as a way to negotiate your price down.  “Do a good job here and we’ll hire you for the next, bigger project.”  That is usually bunk because the next project is going to have similar budget issues.  However business folk do talk to each other, and being a success one one project will get you referred.  In fact, the entire 10 years of DotComIt Consulting was funded primarily by referrals.  Other opportunities could be training or comp time off, or… well, be creative.
  • Responsibility: If you do a good job, you’ll get more authority, or a wider scope of duties.

The idea is that in a win/win agreement, you are defining the actions that need to be done, the consequences of success ,and the consequences of failure.  You are not dictating the procedures or path, only the end result.  I’m still absorbing this idea, but I can think of many ideas where I failed in this.  Here is one:

When building the Flextras e-commerce site, I outsourced it.  I had a detailed mock up of how I envisioned the site would work; the pages that were needed; and some “business logic” style comments on each one.  I virtually sat down with the developer and went over the specs and we worked out a time frame for development.  We agreed to an hourly rate, signed a contract, and off he went.  He missed the first two deadlines.  I wasn’t keeping tabs on him because I was off building product.  Finally, I was ready to launch, but had no site.  I spoke to him two days before Christmas and asked if he could make final delivery by the end of the year.  We worked out a new list of deliverables, with less functionality to be ready and off he went again.  He missed the deadline a week later.  I was upset.

The problem is that there were no consequences for missing the deadline.  And no consequences for making the deadline either.  It was an hourly agreement, where I paid a contractor for the time he put in.  The missed deadlines, and late delivery were a direct result of me not defining the consequences.  How could consequences have helped the project?

I could have offered a bonus for on time delivery, or I could have received a discount for missing the delivery date.  I may have been able to offer psychic rewards, such as a hand written thank you note upon successful completion or a shout out to all my twitter friends, a public thank you on my blog.  I’m not sure what extra responsibility I could have offered to a non-employee; but you can be sure I’ll think twice before recommending that developer for future opportunities [or jobs].

I try to think of successes I’ve had where defining consequences has brought about successful implementation, but unfortunately I cannot think of one.  It is something I plan to explicitly incorporate into the agreement I make with future employees, contractors, or business partners.


Mar 23 2009

Blue Oceans

John

I’m barely, maybe a third into ‘Blue Ocean Strategies‘ but from page 1 the idea resonated with me. Mad props to @tugglMatt for hooking me up and @joshClauss for giving up his copy. I can’t wait to finish it and pass it on to Tom.

At 360|Conferences, we try to not compete with other event planners and conferences, because we don’t really consider most if any of them as competition. I’m not gonna name names, because well they don’t deserve the traffic and people call me “harsh” for calling them out like I tend to do. That said, most charge a fortune for attendees, bend sponsors over with Sponsorship fees and charge for add ons, like Pre-Conference training.

We don’t.

I was thinking about the Blue Ocean concept the other day when Tom and I were planning to announce our new sponsorship price. It occured to me that we were (I hope) creating a blue ocean around sponsors, by treating them like our partners, not just cash cows, that we collect money from and hope they make the most of what we offer. We realize that if our sponsors succeed in their goals for attending our events, they’re more likely to return, and more likely to exist in the future, both of which we like.

We started 360Conferencs, thinking about sponsors the same way everyone else does. Charging them based on “sponsorship levels” and then essentially telling them to make the most of what they’ve paid for.

I’m really hopeful that our sponsors (new and returning) like this new approach, seeing the value to them that we hope we’ve created. I think it’s about time that conferences stopped milking sponsors, especially in this economy, but in general. It’s a terrible practice and most sponsors of other events I’ve ever spoken too, feel taken. “We paid $2,000 for this carpet because we wanted the padding underneaths since we stand all day.” and “We needed internet to demo and that was an extra $3,000 for a single drop, and it’s slow!”

Why?


Jan 12 2009

Recession-Proofing

Andrew

I recently attended a business luncheon in downtown Indianapolis on the topic, “What does an Obama administration mean for Indiana business?”  The speaker was a well-known economist, Morton J. Marcus.  He didn’t have much to say about what an Obama administration will mean (since nobody seems to really know for sure yet), but he did have quite a few thoughts on the recession and economy overall.  In one of his anecdotes, he mentioned that he had a young niece who had a degree in finance and went to work for a large New York financial firm as a high-paid analyst.  The problem with this scenario (and it’s a very common mistake to make) is to become too specialized with non-transferrable skills.  Since the finance sector has collapsed, his niece has since lost her job and is sitting on a million-plus mortgage .  There isn’t exactly a whole lot of new jobs opening up with her skillset right now either.  Even though the financial sector bailout is in full swing, the companies receiving money aren’t likely to use that money to save jobs, they’re more likely to save their bottom line.

This is why I think it’s important to recession-proof yourself with transferrable skills.  Whether you’re a startup, or simply a cog on someone’s wheel, it’s important that you view your job as temporary.  If you think you may be too specialized in one area that may not be in high demand for very long, consider this a wake-up call to train yourself in skills that are in higher demand.  Don’t wait around for the hammer to fall, do something about it ahead of time.

As part of my startup’s recession-proofing plan, I’m looking to branch out into embedded device design and development.  I’m in the process of learning microcontroller C programming and I’m starting design work on a new device that will leverage GPS technology.  This new venture may or may not work out, but it’s still worthwhile to me as I’ll be gaining new transferrable skillset if the worst should happen.